Reflections on Public Art: Anish Kapoor’s ‘Cloud Gate’

On a recent trip to Chicago I visited Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, installed in the Millennium Park. Approaching it from Michigan Avenue is like encountering a mirage. Cloud Gate is as impressive as it is uncontainable and indescribable. Like a gigantic drop of shiny mercury fallen from the sky, its sensual shape evokes something that is constantly morphing, reaching for the sky while also firmly grounded. It is an alien structure, yet by reflecting back the surrounding city, it becomes immediately familiar to us.

The terms ‘cloud’ and ‘gate’ evoke many things. It is a cloud that contains the sky, rather than being contained by it. In contrast with the dark, heavy and uncanny ‘data clouds’ that govern our mediated lives – clouds that attempt to transform us into pure information to be contained behind the closed gates of private data centres – Cloud Gate reflects back our desires, expressions and emotions to ourselves, passersby, and the city. As a gate, it does not create new spatial hierarchies. Rather than performing the role of a symbolically charged ceremonial gate – that eventually becomes detached from their original meaning and survive as an architectural curiosity – Cloud Gate invites the viewers to interpret it through their own subjectivities and to engage with it. It invites people to enter it, revealing its navel, a cave like space that catches visitors by surprise: a crescendo of darkness and distortion where the whole surroundings and everyone around seems to be swallowed up towards its apex.

It is interesting to note that the first thing visitors do is to try and capture the sculpture on camera, attempting to register something that simply refuses to be captured in a two-dimensional canvas. It feels like Cloud Gate is trying to capture you rather than allowing you to capture it and transform it into yet another nugget to be uploaded to some faraway ‘data cloud’ . Cloud Gate reserves its full experience to those that engage with it, joining it on stage rather than sitting in the audience. Despite the many times I read about it, and saw pictures of it, I was still in awe when encountering the real thing.

The second thing that visitors do is to engage playfully with it: distorting their own images, lying on the ground to see the reflection of the city and passersby on its surface, touching it and trying to spot themselves as they walk near it. The lack of clear visual references, such as starting or ending point, actual height of the navel’s apex, location of your reflection – and sometimes, difficulty in determining where its edge stops and the real sky begins – lends an ethereal touch to the whole experience.

My experience was like any other visitor’s. I walked around, took photos, tried to get different angles of the navel’s reflection by kneeling down and looking up, walked inside and through it to experience the differences in light and distortion. I amused myself at the reaction of other visitors and the lengths that people went to in order to capture it from a different angle. In the end I also sat back on a bench and, as a detached audience member, admired the slow movement of real clouds reflected on the upper part of its shiny, near-perfect surface.

Cloud Gate is a testament to the power of simplicity and elegance. In our age of gratuitous spectacle, it reminds us that the best spectacle is the one that we provide to ourselves through interaction with our surrounding environment.

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